Reed, Lou (1942—)

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Reed, Lou (1942—)

Lou Reed, both as a solo artist and as a member of the Velvet Underground, had an extraordinary influence on the history of rock and roll from the 1960s through the 1990s. Brian Eno once observed that hardly anyone bought the Velvet Underground's albums when they were first released, but the ones who did all formed their own bands.

Born and raised on Long Island, Reed attended Syracuse University, where he met and befriended the poet Delmore Schwartz. After leaving Syracuse, Reed landed a position writing pop songs for Pickwick Records, where he met John Cale, a classically trained cellist who had played with the Dream Syndicate, LaMonte Young's avant-garde ensemble. In 1965, Cale and Reed formed a band, rounding out the lineup with Sterling Morrison, whom Reed had known from college, and Angus MacLise on drums, later replaced by Maureen "Mo" Tucker. After going through a variety of names, they finally settled on the Velvet Underground, the title of a pulp pornographic novel. The band's first show was less than auspicious: they were booked as the opening act at a high school dance in Summit, New Jersey. The following year, the Velvets became the house band at The Factory, Andy Warhol's studio and performance space. Warhol convinced them to add Nico, the German actress and model, as a vocalist and signed them on to the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, his touring multimedia show.

Their first album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, features topics unheard of in 1960's rock. "I'm Waiting for the Man" and "Heroin" are frank and even celebratory depictions of drug addiction, while the sadomasochistic themes of "Venus and Furs" would provide a model for many gothic bands of the 1980s and 1990s. Beyond the lyrics, however, the album was important for a number of reasons. The songs, all of which were written or cowritten by Reed, were deceptively simple (Reed once said he liked the fact that anyone could play them), and the musicianship was deliberately stripped down. Reed's vocals were often laconic, almost spoken, and provided a model for singers such as Ric Ocasek of the Cars, Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes, and Jonathan Richman. While the band acquired a reputation as both arty and dark, songs such as "I'll Be Your Mirror," "There She Goes Again" and "Femme Fatale" were straight-up pop songs. That combination of a do-it-yourself attitude, artistic aspirations, and a strong pop sensibility would exert an enormous influence on the punk and independent music scenes of the late 1970s and 1980s.

While the Velvets' first release had used feedback and Cale's dissonant string arrangements as a kind of background noise, White Light, White Heat, the band's second album, was a relentless barrage of sound. Experimenting with various effects pedals for his guitar, Reed developed a style in which a squalling wall of feedback was overlaid on every song. It was a wildly different approach from the highly produced and orchestrated sounds which most rock bands of the 1960s had adopted. Even in the 1980s, White Light, White Heat remained influential, as bands such as the Gang of Four and the Jesus and Mary Chain incorporated a layer of feedback into their music.

Cale left the band after White Light, White Heat, and the Velvets recorded two more albums, The Velvet Underground and Loaded, as well as unreleased sessions later issued as VU, before Reed left the band in 1970. While those efforts at first did not reach the less-than-impressive sales of the first two albums, they indicated the direction Reed's solo career would take. Loaded featured "Sweet Jane" and "Rock and Roll," two songs which would become among Reed's most famous.

After quitting the band, Reed took a day job as typist at his father's accounting firm, then released two albums in 1972: Lou Reed and Transformer. The latter was produced by David Bowie, who was an unapologetic Reed admirer. ("Queen Bitch," released on Bowie's 1971 album Hunky Dory, is an unmistakable tribute to the Velvets.) Transformer contains "Walk on the Wild Side," which remains Reed's most popular song.

Reed was exceptionally prolific from the 1970s through the late 1990s, and while his work was often well received, few listeners believed it equaled his work with the Velvet Underground or his early solo efforts. In 1989 he reunited with John Cale on Songs for Drella, an album of songs about the Andy Warhol, who had died two years earlier. In 1993, the original Velvet Underground reunited (minus Nico, who had died in 1988) and played a brief reunion tour. Perhaps one of the oddest moments in Reed's career was when he played a twenty-minute set at the White House in 1998 at the request of Czech President Vaclav Havel, who had insisted that Reed and the Velvets were important influences on the Czech underground who had fought against Soviet domination.

—Bill Freind

Further Reading:

Bockris, Victor, and Gerard Malanga. Uptight: The Velvet Underground Story. New York, Quill, 1985.

McNeil, Legs, and Gillian McCain. Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. New York, Grove Press, 1996.